Dating from the earliest annals of mankind, human hunters have made effective use of a variety of poisons to help dispatch their quarries, whether animal or human. Speaking to 59 enthusiastic Y’s Men of Meriden on Tuesday, Sept. 12, as they celebrated their first meeting of the new season, Ken White, retired chemist and club member, spoke on “Poisons and their History,” backed up by a PowerPoint presentation.
It likely started with poison mushroom material (of the genus amanita) applied to sharpened sticks, used for hunting and warfare. Best known are the fly agaric, destroying angels, and death cap species; indeed, the latter was fatally fed to a Russian Tsar, a Pope, and to Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 A.D. (his death arranged by his wife Agrippina). Hemlock, another poison widely used by the ancient Greeks on prisoners and enemies, is a small bush whose poison works by paralyzing first the extremities and finally the breathing muscles; indeed Socrates, a pillar of Western Philosophy, was sentenced to death for treason by drinking hemlock.
Other naturally-occurring poisons include wolf’s bane often applied to arrow tips, popular for bear hunting by the Japanese Ainu, hunting and warfare by the Chinese, and whale hunting by single Aleut hunters in a kayak armed with a poison-tipped lance. And even mountain laurel, Connecticut’s state flower, sometimes kills foraging animals and also results in “Mad Honey” (produced by nectar-gathering bees) which can sicken humans. Other natural poisons include belladonna, strychnine (causing a particularly painful death from violent convulsions), water hemlock (one of North America’s most toxic plants), and castorbean (whose toxic ricin is neutralized by heat prior to conversion into castor oil).
Non-natural poisons include arsenic (used by the notorious German serial killer Sophie Ursinus to kill her aunt, her husband and her lover at the turn of the 19th century). And cyanide resulted in the deaths of seven people during the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982, and 918 deaths in Jonestown (Guyana) in 1978. Not taking any “chances,” Adolph Hitler bit on a cyanide capsule as he shot himself.
Cleopatra died by suicide from the bite of an asp (Egyptian cobra), apparently after first trying it out on several condemned prisoners to find the least painful way to die. And more recently in 2006, Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, a former Russian secret service member who defected to England, died after Polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive poison, was slipped into his cup of tea, presumably by Russian agents.
Retired or semi-retired men from Meriden or surrounding communities, interested in attending a Y’s Men of Meriden meeting, are invited to call 203-238-7784 or visit the www.ysmenofmeriden.com website.